Long before larger-than-life David Copperfield specials and Masked Magicians, it was an open question whether magic could even garner an audience on the burgeoning technology known as television. Much of the groundwork laid for current televised magic owes itself to when the medium was a wild west of producers experimenting with different ideas. One of those early pioneers was a determined young Dallas newlywed, fresh out of college in the early 1950s with an advertising degree and a fascination with the emergent technology. His name was Mark Wilson.
“Television had just been coming to town in the last few years,” Wilson told GeniiOnline in an interview. “At first nobody had ever watched a picture on a TV screen at home. My goodness, why in the world would you do that? You'd have to have one of those actual TV screens in your home. Now if you wanted to see one you could walk down main street in Dallas and you could look in the window of either a department store or a electronics store and you could see some kind of a black-and-white picture on a screen on that big box, and they said, that's television."
“My father, who was in the oil business, bought a set. Then we had one in our house and other neighbors would come and watch the one that we had in our house. They had news, sports, and a cooking show. The neighbors would come watch and I thought, boy, magic could be wonderful on television. Magic would be great on TV.”
Wilson developed a plan. Already an adept stage magician, he attended Southern Methodist University in Dallas. There he majored in advertising to learn how to pitch his magic show concept to local stations in his hometown.
At the time, this was unheard of. While world-class magicians like Marvyn Roy would occasionally be featured on the Ed Sullivan show, those were rare guests booked sporadically. Wilson dreamed of reaching a large audience on a regular basis–or at least large compared to the handfuls of people who would watch him perform during his day job clerking at Douglas Magicland.
“I majored at SMU in advertising because I wanted to sell a television series with magic. Who ever heard of this?” he said. “I graduated, I married the lovely Nani Darnell, and I wanted to sell that series I'd been talking about. Think of how many people you could get on television! Where I worked you could get maybe 15-20 people at one time, because they could all line up in front of the counter and I could do magic for them. I bet on television I could get several hundred people, maybe even a thousand people!"
“I know, that sounds impossible," he joked, “but at the time, can you imagine that?”
With degree in hand, he set off to sell his concept to the four local stations in the area: ABC, NBC, CBS, and one independent station. His first attempt failed spectacularly, as he was rejected by them one-by-one.
“They were all good enough to tell me, ‘Mark, you're talking about a new form of entertainment called television. A lot of television can be done with trick photography. Your kind of magic just won't work on television, so you stick to those live shows.’”
Wilson was discouraged but not defeated. He noticed that many television shows, like radio before them, were based around endemic sponsorships. If he could secure a sponsor first, it would make his pitch that much more appealing to TV stations. He set his sights on Dr. Pepper, but the soda company would need him to offer something in return. Wilson promised the company a premium that he would offer in exchange for proofs-of-purchase. His proposal was a booklet of magic tricks called the “Dr. Pepper Sealed Secrets.” The show would serve as an advertisement for the booklet, which could only be obtained by drinking lots of Dr. Pepper.
“You had to have proof of purchase of the product, and they would receive a little booklet that contained 13 tricks,” he explained. “I would do one trick per week. I didn't teach the magic [on the show], I showed the effect, and if you want to be able to pull that coin through the handkerchief like this, you must send in 12 Dr. Pepper bottle caps, and we will send you the Sealed Secrets book.”
That was enough to earn him a sponsorship and two time slots, 15 minutes apiece on Tuesdays and Thursdays, in 1954. The show, titled “Time For Magic” was a smash hit in the Dallas area, with ratings that sometimes even beat out airings of news broadcasts and Howdy Doody. The 13-episode run earned a second season, with a second booklet. Dr. Pepper itself was responsible for printing the books, but hadn’t counted on the sheer number of books it needed to make.
By the time Wilson finished the run of Time for Magic, Dr. Pepper had received 300,000 bottle caps. Wilson, who had dreamed big of performing for a thousand people through the new mass medium, had brought in enough caps to print out 25,000 booklets.
Wilson wasn’t finished steering magic’s development on television, however. He went on to develop Magic Land of Allakazam for CBS in 1960, the first magic show to be nationally syndicated. Having learned the value of them, he secured a Kellogg’s sponsorship for it. It aired Saturday mornings, a prime viewing time for young children, and featured kid-friendly tricks, children volunteers, and a clown assistant.
The legacy of that first televised experience has lived on in more subtle ways as well. Wilson may be best known for his published book, Mark Wilson’s Complete Course in Magic. The Sealed Secrets sponsorship was a precursor to this step-by-step guide, which is still used as a reference and teaching tool for young and aspiring magicians.
Wilson has long since taken a step back from the televised stage, letting a new generation stand on the foundation he helped create. One of those young magicians is own son, Greg Wilson, who appeared on Penn and Teller: Fool Us in 2015. As the finishing flourish to a lengthy sword-box trick, Greg revealed his parents, Mark Wilson and Nani Darnell, to a standing ovation from the hosts.
Penn gave a passionate monologue about his surprise at seeing two of the most influential magicians of his life. It turns out Wilson can still make an entrance on television–with a few more than a thousand people watching.